What startup founders can learn from the fall of Ancient Rome

By Cam Velasco

CEO & Co-Founder
Published: Mar 4, 2024
Just like Ancient Rome, startups can rise to greatness or fall to pieces, and there's a lot we can learn from Rome's history to ensure success and avoid failure. In this blog we'll do a quick rundown of the lessons for startup founders
Two confident startup founders standing back-to-back in a modern office setting.

Just like Ancient Rome, startups can rise to greatness or fall to pieces, and there’s a lot we can learn from Rome’s history to ensure success and avoid failure. Here’s a quick rundown of the lessons for startup founders:

  • Instill a Strong, Aligned Culture: Ensure everyone in the company shares the same mission and values.
  • Create a Defensible Strategy Against Threats: Be aware of external risks like market shifts and competitors, and build resilient defenses.
  • Growth in Focus: Aim for sustainable growth rather than rapid expansion to avoid spreading resources too thin.
  • Maintain Unified Leadership: Avoid power struggles and ensure clear vision and goals.

By understanding these key points, startup founders can navigate the challenges of rapid growth and external pressures, much like Ancient Rome faced in its time.

The Beginning of the End: Internal and External Pressures Leading to Decline
  • When Rome was at its biggest, it faced a lot of problems like fights within its society, wars, and attacks from outsiders.
  • Because Rome was so spread out, it was hard to protect every area well. Having leaders in different places made it confusing and hard for everyone to work together.
  • Startups can run into similar issues – like the team not sticking together, leaders not being on the same page, employees confused about their jobs, and rivals trying to outdo them. They might also try to do too much with too few resources.
  • Keeping a strong culture, clear leadership, knowing who does what, and staying focused are key to avoid these problems.

Lesson 1 to startup founders: Instill a Strong, Aligned Culture

When Ancient Rome started falling apart, a big reason was that its people and leaders were not working together anymore. Different groups fought against each other, which made Rome weak and easy to attack from the outside.

Startups need to make sure everyone in the company is on the same page. It’s important to have a strong company culture where everyone understands and believes in the same mission and values.

United We Stand: Aligning Teams Behind a Shared Mission

Startups that do well often have everyone believing in the same core ideas and goals. On the other hand, startups that have teams fighting or not agreeing with each other usually run into trouble. Here are some examples:

  • Company A did great because everyone believed in putting customers first. Every team knew how they helped make customers happy, which kept them working together even when the company got bigger.
  • Company B, however, had its sales and engineering teams fighting over whether to make quick money or build something great for the future. The leaders spent more time trying to stop the fights than getting everyone to work together.
  • Company C made sure even people working far away felt part of the team by having meetings where everyone could hear about the company’s goals. Surveys showed that people working there felt really good about their jobs and what the company was doing.

In short, when a startup doesn’t have a strong shared mission, it can fall apart. But if everyone is working towards the same goal, the company can handle growing pains better. Founders need to make sure everyone knows and cares about the company’s main goals.

Asana: A Case Study in Values-Based Culture

Asana

Asana is a company that did really well because it made sure everyone working there cared about the same things: being clear, kind, and doing the right thing. Here’s how they did it:

  • They made everything about the company’s goals and plans open for everyone to see. This helped everyone know what they were working towards.
  • They made a work environment where being kind and helping others was important. Surveys showed that almost everyone felt good about working there.
  • They also made sure to do things the right way, focusing on being honest and responsible.

Asana shows that when a company has a strong culture where everyone agrees on the important things, it helps everyone do their jobs better and makes the company successful. This example shows how having everyone in the company care about the same values can really make a difference.

Lesson 2 to startup founders: Create a Defensible Strategy Against Threats

Identifying External Risk Factors

Startups have to watch out for things that could mess up their business from the outside. It’s wise to keep an eye on stuff like:

  • Market shifts: If what people want, the economy, or technology changes, a startup’s product might not be as cool or needed anymore. It’s important to always be checking what’s going on in the market.
  • New innovations: If someone comes up with a game-changing product, it can quickly make other products look old. Startups have to keep coming up with new ideas and can’t just sit back and relax.
  • Competitors: If another company that does something similar gets a lot of money, they could start taking customers away. It’s important to know what competitors are up to.
  • Regulations: Sometimes, new rules or laws can make a startup’s way of doing business really hard or even impossible. Having someone who knows a lot about these rules can help a startup stay ahead.

By keeping an eye on these things, startups can be ready for problems before they get too big. They don’t want to be surprised and lose out because of something they didn’t see coming.

Building Resilient Defenses

Some startups do really well even when unexpected things happen. They have plans that are flexible but still stick to their main goals. For example:

  • Company X suddenly had to focus on a different group of customers. But because they were quick to change and had different things to offer, they were able to adjust their marketing and products fast.
  • When new rules made Company Y’s main business a problem, they used partnerships and extra services to keep going until they could come up with new products that followed the rules.
  • Company Z had a lot of loyal customers and worked efficiently. So, even when a new competitor with a lot of money tried to take their customers with big discounts, most people stayed. They kept making money and eventually got back on top with better products.

The trick is to have a solid plan but be ready to change some things when needed. Successful startups know what they’re good at and stick to it, but they also adjust their products, how they work, and who they work with to get through tough times. They work on having strong points that help them stay strong no matter what happens in the industry.

Lesson 3 to startup founders: Growth in Focus

The Allure of Rapid Expansion

When startups start doing well, they often feel pushed by investors and others to grow fast. The idea is to quickly move into new areas and grab more of the market before anyone else can. But trying to grow too fast can spread your resources too thin.

Founders might think they need to grow quickly to impress people who might invest money or partner with them. But growing in a smart way takes time and thought, not just quick moves. Startups should be careful about trying to get big fast or making big moves just to look strong.

Rome also felt the need to keep growing its land to get more resources and power. But stretching itself too far made it weak and easy to attack.

Prioritizing Sustainable Growth

Instead of just trying to get big fast, startups should aim for steady and doable growth:

  • Make sensible plans for moving into new areas or reaching new customers. Go step by step instead of trying to do everything at once.
  • Look at your performance carefully before growing to make sure there’s a real chance for success and that you’re ready for it.
  • Try starting small in new places, maybe with short-term tests, before putting in a lot of resources. If things aren’t going well, it’s okay to pause.
  • Hire more people, get more technology, and add other resources bit by bit as needed. Hiring too many people or spending too much too soon can cause money problems.
  • Keep a close watch on all parts of your business. Make sure everyone knows who’s in charge of what in your growth plans.

Growing fast can seem exciting, but it’s important to think it through. Growing in a smart, controlled way is the best path to long-term success.

Lesson 4 to startup founders: Maintain Unified Leadership

The Risks of Power Struggles

When Ancient Rome started to fall apart, a big reason was that people in charge couldn’t agree and were always fighting for more power. This is a big warning for startups – if the people who started the company or the investors can’t get along, it’s going to cause a lot of problems.

Here are some ways fights for power can mess things up in startups:

  • Founders arguing over who gets to make decisions or what direction to take the company. This makes everyone else unsure about what’s happening.
  • Investors trying to push the company to grow fast to make quick money, even if it’s not the best thing for the company in the long run. This can mess up the original plan for the business.
  • Teams in different parts of the company working against each other instead of together. This stops new ideas and slows down progress.

When there’s no clear leader or plan, it’s hard for everyone to know what they should be doing. This can make the company weak.

Clarity of Vision, Goals and Governance

To keep away from the problems we just talked about, startups need:

  • A clear plan and goal that everyone knows about. This helps make sure everyone is working in the same direction.
  • Clear rules on who makes decisions. Usually, this should be the people who started the company and the CEO. This stops too many arguments about what to do next.
  • Rewards for leaders that match the company’s big goals. This means not just looking at their own team’s success but how they help the whole company. This encourages everyone to work together.

Also, having clear rules about who gets to say what in the company (like who gets to be on the board or how decisions are made) can stop one person or group from having too much power.

In short, the story of Rome tells us that when everyone isn’t working together, things fall apart. Startups need everyone, especially those in charge, to be on the same page. Having a clear plan, making sure everyone knows who’s in charge, and making sure the rules are fair is key to growing in a good way.

Oberlo: A Modern Success Story

Oberlo is a great example of a startup that grew a lot by keeping its team focused, expanding carefully to other countries, and making sure its founders stayed involved in big decisions.

Keeping the Team Together While Growing Fast

As Oberlo quickly became popular for its Shopify ecommerce app, the founders worked hard to keep the startup’s values of being innovative, honest, and making a difference as it grew.

  • They hired people who fit well with the company’s values. This helped keep everyone working together towards the same goals.
  • They regularly asked employees how they felt about their jobs and fixed any problems quickly.
  • They even hired someone just to make sure the company culture stayed strong through activities and open talks.

This focus helped Oberlo aim for big goals without losing its way or having people work against each other.

Growing Carefully in New Places

Instead of rushing to sell in other countries, Oberlo took careful steps.

  • They did a lot of research to pick the best places to grow based on how ready those places were for ecommerce.
  • They started with small teams in new countries who knew both cultures well. This helped them understand the market better with less risk.
  • They slowly added features and translations based on what users in each place really needed.
  • They opened more offices only after seeing good results from the first ones.

This careful approach helped Oberlo grow in over a dozen countries by focusing on the best chances for success.

Startup Founders Keeping an Eye on Things

Even after getting a lot of funding, Oberlo’s founders stayed very involved.

  • They made rules that let them keep control over the company’s direction and values.
  • They chose board members who agreed with the startup’s long-term plans.
  • They regularly checked in with all the teams to make sure everyone was still on track. If things started to drift, they quickly got everyone back on the same page.

This close watch by the founders helped Oberlo grow fast but in a way that stayed true to what it was all about.

Conclusion: Reflect on History to Forge the Future

The Lifecycle from Rise to Fall

The story of Ancient Rome is a lot like what happens to startups when they grow too fast. Rome started small and became huge by taking over new places. But growing too much caused problems – leaders fought over power, and Rome couldn’t defend itself against enemies.

Startups can also grow quickly by getting lots of users and trying to take over the market. But if they don’t have a strong team spirit and clear leadership, growing too fast can lead to big problems later.

Heeding the Past to Succeed Today

History teaches us how to do better. Startups that carefully build a team that sticks together, plan for challenges, grow steadily, and have leaders who work well together can last a long time.

Rome shows us both how amazing success can be and the dangers of wanting too much, too fast. Startup founders can learn from history to avoid making the same mistakes. By remembering these important lessons while they build their companies, they can create something that lasts.

Related Questions

What we can learn from ancient Rome?

The ancient Romans were really good at building things and coming up with new ideas. Here are a few cool things they did:

  • They made water systems that could move water without needing pumps, just using gravity. People still think this is pretty smart.
  • They figured out how to make super strong concrete with volcanic ash. This let them build huge buildings that have lasted a really long time.
  • They built roads that went straight across their empire. A lot of these roads are still around, and we use their paths for our roads today.
  • They had ideas like helping the poor, keeping cities clean, and having fun games and shows for everyone.

There’s a lot startups can learn from Rome, like how to build strong foundations, be efficient, use technology, connect everything together, and understand what people need.

What started after the fall of Rome?

After Rome fell around 500 CE, Europe went into the Middle Ages, which lasted about 1,000 years. Here’s what happened:

  • Local leaders started running things because there wasn’t one big government anymore. This system is called feudalism.
  • The church became really important in people’s lives and had a lot of power.
  • There weren’t as many people around because of wars, not enough food, and diseases. This made things pretty tough for a while.
  • Small kingdoms started forming, which later turned into the countries in Europe we know today.

So, after Rome, Europe changed a lot with new ways of living and new kinds of leaders.

How did the fall of the Roman Empire contribute to the beginning of the Middle Ages?

When Rome fell, there wasn’t a strong government anymore. Local leaders took over, which led to a system where people worked on farms for protection and land. This system is called feudalism and was a big deal in the Middle Ages.

Without a big government, things like schools, trade, and health care got worse, and there were fewer people around. So, Rome falling apart made Europe enter a time where life was pretty different and simpler.

What do historians believe to be the fall of Rome?

Historians think Rome fell because of a bunch of problems that got worse over time:

  • Invasions – Groups of fighters kept attacking Rome, and eventually, Rome couldn’t keep them out.
  • Money problems – It got harder for Rome to make money and pay for things like their army.
  • Leaders fighting – People in charge kept arguing and fighting for power, which made things really unstable.
  • People not getting along – Different groups in Rome didn’t work together well, which made it hard to keep things running smoothly.
  • Spending too much on the army – Rome spent a lot of money trying to protect its borders, which left them with not much for anything else.

So, it wasn’t just one thing that made Rome fall. It was a lot of big problems happening at the same time.

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Cam Velasco

CEO & Co-Founder

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